BY MATTHEW HERBERT
I’ve always had a strained relationship with postmodernist philosophy. That’s the idea that we make up reality: there’s truth for you and truth for me, but no Truth with a capital T.
When I read in the 1990s that postmodernism’s leading light, Jacques Derrida, said there is nothing outside the text (Il n’y a pas de hors-texte), I thought, well, anyone sitting on a beach can scoop up a handful of sand and disprove that theory. We don’t need to name sand for it to exist, or any of the rest of reality for that matter.
Of course Derrida meant something more subtle. He didn’t mean there’s absolutely no such thing as the world around us. But without language to shape and categorize our interface with the world, there would only exist an undifferentiated quantum of not-quite-reality. (William James, much more helpfully than Derrida, called this a “bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion.” Wittgenstein was more poignant: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” he said.) We write things into existence, Derrida argued, by imposing structures of grammar and meaning on them. (The 1967 book in which Derrida dropped this anti-reality bomb has the forbidding but not quite helpful title Of Grammatology.)
So here’s the first thing to bear in mind about postmodernism: it has a way of overselling its claims. I think the idea is to generate hype; first you say something very radical-sounding and then you hedge and dissimulate till you arrive at a much less exciting truth.
How about this next example.– When the postmodernist Jean Beaudrillard wrote a book about the Persian Gulf War of 1991, he called it The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. If you read the book you’ll discover what he really meant, which was: (a) the Gulf War did take place, and (b) it was so thoroughly mediated by propaganda and flashy TV images that you could imagine the media spectacle was the whole point and in some way more “real” than the war itself. It’s a much less radical claim than the title promises.
By the way, I fought in the Gulf War and can vouch for (a). I got on a real plane in August of 1990, dodged a (real) SCUD or two, and then flew home in April of 1991.
I think it’s important that I sketch just how sharply I opposed postmodernism even before I knew what it was. When I got around to finishing college in the mid 1990s, I discovered my own worldview, and its philosophical foundations. It was pretty much the opposite of postmodernism. According to my newly discovered hero, Socrates, the world is made up of a set of hard-edged objects defined by knowable concepts and set into relation with each other by immutable laws. Think of gravity, or Mount Everest, or math. They would exist without humans, or language.
I believed this with the fervor of a tent show revival convert. Of course we do not invent the truth that 2+2=4 any more than we hallucinate the fact that there is a physical world all around us. To think otherwise seemed not just factually wrong to me but irreverent in some quasi-religious way. Being postmodernist was a comprehensively wrong attitude about life, a sneer impersonating a theory, as far as I was concerned.
So when I decided to go to grad school to get my PhD in philosophy, it was basically a decision to go to war against the edifice of postmodernism. My hatred for it gave my life meaning. The way wised-up twenty-year olds could start spouting about science being a “matrix of patriarchal power projections” (or other nonsense) before even trying to understand, say, the periodic table, convinced me that a postmodernist was anyone trying to look cool while avoiding serious intellectual work.
Here’s the second thing about Postmodernism: it is mostly written in gibberish; furthermore, this is, I believe, essential to its character. Its lifeblood is the creative obfuscation of ordinary claims and arguments with opaque jargon.
Flip to a random page of any postmodernist tract, and you will encounter deeply unintelligible passages whose only job seems to be generating new, transgressive terminology.
The point, or, rather, pointlessness, of postmodernist writing was exposed by the physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 when he published the now-infamous paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the journal Social Text. Sokal filled his article with such compelling nonsense that the journal’s editors mistook it to be a razor-sharp rapier stroke against the “objectivity” of science. The construction they put on “Transgressing the Boundaries” was that the epistemological ambiguity at the heart of quantum phenomena had significant implications for science, society, and the whole notion of truth. Sokal, in fact, believed nothing of the sort. A pocket-protector-and-pen kind of guy, he had made the whole paper up just to see what he could get away with. It was a huge embarrassment for postmodernists.
My club of philosophers thought this was pretty cool. There is absolutely nothing sweeter than watching your enemies self-immolate in public. Or at least that’s how I felt in 1996.
But I didn’t finish my doctorate: I didn’t dismantle postmodernism. It turned out that believing other people’s worldview to be incredibly dumb was not enough oomph to get me through a PhD. And so I moved on. Although I never forgot about the fight between objectivity and whatever postmodernists believed in, my ability to join in that combat faded in importance over the years. I read novels instead of philosophy.
But something has changed over the last 27 years. Even though I remain fundamentally Socratic in my worldview, I have not been able to avoid some of the fears and suspicions that originally motivated postmodernism. And so I have found the need to re-digest certain postmodernist claims in ways that make sense to me and help me cope with a reality that is not quite as stable as I believed it to be in 1996.
The biggest development that has brought on this rethink is the empowerment of a global anti-enlightenment movement that thrives on the abolishment of the distinction between truth and falsehood.
The idea that we might not be able to discover certain facts is not new. Science is hard, history has gaps, and so forth. The scope of human knowledge must have limits. But the attitude that results from a wholesale skepticism about everything has taken on new, dangerous dimensions. I blame reality TV.
In his groundbreaking 2014 book, Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, Peter Pomerantsev reports on the reality-bending twists and turns at the foundation of the Kremlin’s control of information in Russia. Very briefly: When Putin took power in 2000, he cultivated a growing national taste in Russia for reality TV. Reality shows took off, rewarding Russians for suspending their ability to tell fact from fiction by providing them novel, nonstop entertainment.
At the same time, Putin oversaw the construction of a political machine that created, not just his own party’s image, but all of what would pass for civil society, including the political opposition. Let me underline that: every time an opposition party has appeared in Russia since 2000, it has been created by the Kremlin. This means thousands and thousand of people who genuinely believed they were part of an opposition–indeed subjectively were part of an opposition–were really just actors in a play written by Putin. People are not stupid, of course, and many Russians sensed that their politics was not what it seemed; ringmasters somewhere were secretly orchestrating Russia’s political circus. No matter, Pomerantsev reports; hip skepticism became the new normal. Russia’s elites and growing middle class came to the delirious conclusion that, not only politics, but “everything” was just PR.
Do you see where this is going? If you regard information as primarily a commodity to be served up to empower the ruling class and titilate the masses, you can drop certain bothersome concerns about how true the information is. You can also get people to ignore questions about what information is for in the first place (admittedly an easy task; most of us stop worrying about this sort of thing after high school or college).
The delusion-forming nature of this trend could become dangerous. At its endpoint, you could even get millions of people to believe that their army was surgically dismantling a Nazi junta in a neighboring country actually governed by a freely elected Jew and that the operation was going to plan despite the wholesale, daily destruction by bombardment of residential areas and the sudden flight of three million refugees. Remember?–Language stopped having to correspond with reality back in the 2000s. And if you, as an individual, were confronted with something that looked like a troubling fact–say, the firebombing of a maternity hospital–you could simply brush it off as fake news. In the digital information ecology of 2022, everything is fakeable! You need never believe anything you don’t “like.”
How about America? Our denial of reality is just zany infotainment, not a murderous pathology, right?
The odious spectacle of Alex Jones compounding the devastation of Sandyhook survivors by floating his conspiracy theories and then retreating to the defense that no one can prove anything one way or another stands front and center. Everything is just PR, right? This pose of hip skepticism demands a reconsideration of Foucault’s claim that knowledge is nothing more than ideology imposed by force. While this claim seemed like rank nonsense to me in 1996, it has resurfaced as a terrifyingly plausible reality: What you can get people to know pales in comparison to what you can get them to act on as if they know. Sandyhook “truthers” have physically assaulted surviving parents for allegedly perpetrating an elaborate fiction in the service of an all-powerful gun control conspiracy. Gather a large enough force of anti-knowledge troglodytes (such as Jones’s followers), and you can submerge the very idea of truth. This is the defeat of objective reality by mob rule.
And so I have had to reconsider some of the tenets of postmodernism. The very existence of reality TV tells us there is a human appetite for destabilizing the relationship between facts and representations, mind and world. Whether you think those relationships are inherently unstable (a la Foucault and Derrida) or they have been deliberately degraded by the powers that be (a la Beaudrillard and sometimes Foucault) is, with World War Three looming, rather beside the point. We should not blow the world up in murderous defense of each of our rights to believe whatever we want to believe.
My sermon is over. Here’s the recessional:
I’ve been searching for the reasons I’ve all but stopped using social media. Most of them are ordinary reasons. I got bored. I got tired of meaningless flame wars. I was embarrassed by almost everything I said, either for being too earnest or too obscure. But the deepest reason was resoundingly postmodern. Trying to have any kind of discourse on social media only ends up empowering the enemies of discourse. The information ecology of social media is actuated in a way that kills discourse. It submerges the possibility of truth in a new skepticism now available to all. Just like the “oppositionists” in Putin’s Russia who didn’t know they were the Kremlin’s pawns because their motives were pure, you might be subjectively sure you are having a sincere, well-informed argument on social media, but you’re actually perpetuating an information ecology that ruins argument and is helping ruin the evidentiary boundaries of normal discourse–facts, truth, and other nice things we used to have.
We are, to close with a hat-tip to Beaudrillard, participating in a simulation of discourse, not real discourse. I guess that’s what I got tired of in social media. But the cat videos are still great. I stay on for those.